Northern Ireland is on the verge of securing a direct flight to the Middle East, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
It is hoped that top-level negotiations will secure the route between Belfast and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The development, which may take weeks or months to come to fruition, would open up trade and tourism with the oil-rich Gulf states as well as the Far East, Australia and India, not to mention put us on the map for wealthy Arab golfers, tourists and investors.
The prospect has been welcomed by both Invest Northern Ireland chief executive Alastair Hamilton and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) Minister Arlene Foster, who has helped to spearhead negotiations.
During their recent trip to the United Arab Emirates, Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Ms Foster and Mr Hamilton met three airlines.
The strongest prospect is Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airlines, whose CEO, James Hogan, met with the Northern Ireland delegation. Talks were also held with Qatar Airways and Bahrain’s Gulf Air.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: “I met with airlines such as Etihad and Qatar Airways and made them aware of the potential for direct air links to Northern Ireland.
“By making airlines aware of what Northern Ireland has to offer — both as a short and long haul destination — we can encourage the development of links to international markets.
“This will help to improve Northern Ireland’s competitiveness and will ultimately benefit the promotion of business linkages, enterprise development and in-bound tourism,” the minister added.
Alastair Hamilton said: “We had very good meetings last week. These things take time but there is a fairly high chance that it will happen.”
“From our point of view, it is a very attractive proposition.
“The devolution of air passenger duty to Northern Ireland now gives us a unique edge because if a carrier is looking at these islands it will see in Northern Ireland the opportunity to have either a reduced or completely eliminated air passenger duty.”
The UK rate of Air Passenger Duty (APD) on long-haul flights has long been the highest in the world and this month rose by twice the rate of inflation to £92 for flights over 6,000 miles.
In the Republic of Ireland this tax is not charged.
Last year, Continental Airways, which operates our only long haul scheduled destination to Newark, near New York, threatened to switch flights to Dublin unless the duty was eased.
As a result, agreement was reached to devolve the tax raising powers to Stormont, and in the meantime the UK government has subsidised long-haul APD to the short-haul rate of £13.
This followed a meeting between Jeff Smisek, the chief executive of Continental, and the First and deputy First Ministers in Chicago last September.
Another important argument deployed by the ministers concerned visas and ease of travel.
Currently, an Arab traveller who wants to do business in both the UK and Ireland needs two visas if he or she chooses to fly into Dublin.
Flying to Belfast could reduce that to one.
“Basically, if you travel to Belfast a single visa will do you for both the UK and Ireland,” Mr Hamilton said.
For local businesses, a direct flight to the United Arab Emirates would offer advantages over travelling through Heathrow airport, as well as lower costs.
“We have existing trade missions to Jeddah and Riyadh” Mr Hamilton said.
“It is also much easier to take a flight to Abu Dhabi and then to India as there aren’t five terminals to go through like there are in London.”
Airlines normally plan their route strategy about two years in advance, but the lead in on this decision may be shorter.
Etihad currently operates daily flights from Abu Dhabi to Dublin and Gulf Air and Qatar also operate services there.
More than 44,000 passengers have flown on the Abu Dhabi-Dublin route since its launch in 2007. Three Airbus 330s currently flying the route operate to 80% capacity.
A new service to Belfast could mean that some or all of the 200-seat planes would be switched from Dublin — at least initially.
Cutting passenger tax to secure long-haul flights is crucial
Using a reduction in Air Passenger Duty to secure more long-haul flights is crucial to the efforts of the Executive to rebalance the economy, create 25,500 new jobs and raise private sector wages.
“I want to make long-haul airlines aware that Northern Ireland is a viable option for their business and I believe the devolution of direct long Air Passenger Duty makes this a real possibility,” Arlene Foster, the Enterprise Minister said.
With our traditional trading partners in the Republic, the rest of the UK and the eurozone struggling to emerge from recession, ministers are focusing on countries where the recession has not bitten so deeply.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is developing rapidly on the back of soaring oil revenues. Last year exports from Northern Ireland to the UAE were valued at £110m.
Northern Ireland is also focusing on the expanding BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
A second target group, according to Alastair Hamilton of Invest NI, is that of Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa — which are regarded as the next line of economies likely to reach first world status.
Access to international hubs like Abu Dhabi and Newark and, better still, more direct flights, is essential to developing these exciting new markets.